Your Take: Author who calls 'spiritual but not religious' a cop-out responds to comments
October 2nd, 2012
04:04 PM ET

Your Take: Author who calls 'spiritual but not religious' a cop-out responds to comments

By Alan Miller, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Alan Miller is director of The New York Salon and co-founder of London's Old Truman Brewery. He is speaking at The Battle of Ideas at London's Barbican in October.

By Alan Miller, Special to CNN

I wrote a Belief Blog piece on Sunday called "My Take: 'I'm spiritual but not religious' is a cop-out," which has received more than 8,000 comments, many taking up key points I raised.

My assessment is that the wider disorientation of Western society, the decreasing respect for many institutions and the disdain for humans alongside what Christopher Lasch has termed a "culture of narcissism" has played out both among the "spiritual but not religious" identifiers as well as among many "new atheists." Lots of the comments bear that out.

Some commenters accused me of outdated and dangerous dogmatism in sticking up for traditional religion. A commenter whose handle is spectraprism spoke to this view:

“The problem this author advocates is that of thinking anyone has the ONE COMPLETE TRUE WAY- and everything and everyone else therefore NOT advocating it completely must be wrong. This is dogmatic, archaic, leads to extremism and is completely incorrect. Not being challenged into blindly following whatever scripture is not showing softness of any kind - it's showing you have a brain to draw your own personal conclusions that work and make sense to YOU.”

I don't happen to believe in a religious "one true way" and in fact am not religious myself. My comments and observations are based on an increasingly common phenomenon in the past 20 years.

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It is telling, though, that this and many other comments converge on dogmatism and extremism and juxtapose them with the notion that an individual choice is immune to any of that. These comments speak to my point that not wanting to be held accountable to any set of ideas or principles is a very popular position among the “spiritual but not religious."

In recent decades, the demise of the notion that there can be universal truths and the ascendancy of relativism and the new preaching of "many truths" and the idea that "all truths are equally valid" has clearly had significant impact on that identity.

The disenchantment with belief and a commitment to some wider authority has also had an impact on the self-described new atheists, who are furious that anyone could have the audacity to believe in something bigger than themselves.

The end of the big ideas of liberalism and socialism left a vacuum in society. Atheism used to be a small component of bigger movements in society. Ironically, today what defines many new atheists is a shared outlook with “spiritual but not religious” views.

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New atheists define themselves in negative terms, as not believing without any broader sense of a positive alternative, while those identifying with a "spiritual but not religious" outlook define themselves as not religious rather than according to the strong convictions that they do have.

This commenter summarized the sentiments that lots of others express on my piece:

Gina Hamilton
So I should believe in God because Bach did and it was the basis for his work? What Miller fails to understand is that most of us started out with a religious tradition in our lives, and gradually grew up and out of it. I can say clearly that I am a recovering Catholic who at the age of 16 became a humanist and freethinker, but that from the acceptance of the lack of a god proceeds a sense of the oneness of the universe and my place in it. It's not touchy-feely; it's science, and yet it is profoundly spiritual as well. Perhaps Miller, one day, will have this sort of understanding.

It is so interesting how so many people now use the therapeutic language of recovery - "recovering" from organized religion. The group American Atheists describes anguish and toil as the "first step" of "coming out," making the analogy with gays coming out the "closet," as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America.

The therapeutic outlook is of far more concern with regard to human autonomy and freedom than organized religion. The idea is that humans are all "damaged goods" and in need of constant counseling and instruction.

These comments take off on that theme:

Paul Dykstra
Now you need to do an article on ..... "The dangers of being religious, but displaying NO spiritually aware behavior at all".....

Major religions such as Christianity and Islam have proven to be nothing but damaging and vile to our world. I reject this notion that we have to "take a side" on the matter of a higher power. The basic truth about it all is that no matter how much we read or try to decipher life's mysteries we were never meant to have concrete proof of what put us into existence. What is the point in living if you know all the answers? I am spiritual but not religious because religion is a disease of manipulation and control. I can believe in a higher power while also believing that it was never meant for me to understand this higher power until AFTER I die.

honesty is paramount
As a scientist, I am neither religious nor spiritual. I definitely know right from wrong and one of the things that positively defines me: when I don't know the answer to something, I indicate "I don't know". Don't EVER call that indecisive or "wishy-washy".

It is interesting how "spirituality" seems to be thought of as "clean" and unimpeded by problems.

Dustin calls religion a "disease" - once again we see the therapeutic language. Striving for an understanding of the world is an important and essential human attribute, yet so many of the comments have reiterated a generality about "spiritualism" and "my choice" that it seems to endorse the point I made that what seems so paramount is in a determination not to be "labeled" or dictated to by an authority.

So what is left? The superstition and mysticism of some "oneness" and often a therapeutic notion of being "spiritual."

Here’s a comment from someone who identifies as 51yo:

I always had a hard time with the guy in the front of the church, he's a guy... I'm a guy, what's the difference? He will one day be proven as a womanizer or worse, I will never walk that path. After another guy (Constantine) put his hands all over the Bible, I have little faith it is any more true than words my neighbor might come up with. Like you said, I search for truth and read as much as I can, but the final analysis is my own; I'm not tied to someone else's redistribution of "facts" or their interpretation of great stories. I can do that and be a good person without the trappings of a traditional place of worship, or someone telling me to do something they are incapable of.

The commenter 51y0 doesn't want to be tied to anyone else's "facts." While we all have to work out our things in life, I am interested to know what “spiritual but not religious" facts are.

It can seem that on the one hand there's a reluctance to commit to advocating anything and also that words can end up losing any meaning if one simply says something to the affect of "spiritual means it's right for me." Nick says it can mean a lot of different things to people:

Nick Heise
The author of this piece, though he admits that calling the spiritual-but-not-religious movement a movement would be incorrect, still wrote this entire piece as these people were a united group whose thoughts and beliefs could be analyzed and criticized as a group. I'm no genius, but these seems to make his entire position quite flawed.

I put myself out there as a point of reference since, as I'm talking about my own person, I don't have to rely on complete conjecture like the above article. Yes, I have used the expression "I'm spiritual, not religious." But what does that mean to me? Surely it can mean a lot to different people, just like the same scripture of the Bible can be inspiring to many Christians in countless different ways. To me, saying that I'm spiritual but not religious highlights that I'm not a person who believes in the existence of God as a fact, but neither do I believe in his nonexistence as a fact. It's my assertion of the respect and awe that I have in the face of a universe that I can't understand, which contains forces (perhaps a God) that I can never prove to exist or not exist. For me, it's not an unwillingness to think and make a decision - it's the result of years of thinking and consideration with the conclusion that I haven't yet gathered enough information to make a definitive choice.

I’ll end with this comment:

If you look at the definition of religious – even atheists are religious, they just strongly believe in NO God...this is from Webster's Online Dictionary: Definition of RELIGIOUS 1: relating to or manifesting faithful devotion to an acknowledged ultimate reality or deity.

Maybe it's just that people are tired of being fanatical about church – and want to go back to a more open an honest approach to beliefs? Maybe the stigma of being a church member now has such a negative impact on how people think of you that people don't want to admit they go to church? Being spiritual means you believe in something (which I think is better than nothing) – the alternative is NOT only being an atheist....

Organized religious beliefs (even going back into ancient times) have caused more death and destruction than any other organization in the world ... and it's done in the name of (whomever your beliefs say to) – and has been since the beginning of mankind! Maybe choosing to say you're "spiritual" means you don't want to be associated with all the chaos and destruction – and maybe organized religions need to rethink their controls on individuals.

This remark will chime with many – the new atheists among them - who believe that being "spiritual" means you don't want to be associated with all the "chaos and destruction."

It strikes me that having an opt-out plan should have something more than simply a negative, whether it's a "spiritual" one or a "new atheist" negative. We live in an age where many are disillusioned with institutions and humans generally, yet not so evident is a positive alternative.

Thank you for the comments. The event we held last night, "I'm Not Religious – I'm Spiritual" benefited from some of them.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Alan Miller.

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Opinion • Spirituality

soundoff (1,789 Responses)
  1. Steve O


    October 3, 2012 at 10:47 am |
  2. Steve

    A lot of the language I've heard used is a lot like A.A.; 'higher power', 'recovery', 'the first step'. So it's very clear to me that a lot of people have been hurt, wronged and/or disillusioned by religious organizations. I have always believed that people have a problem with people and not with God or the idea of God. Most people (especially now-a-days) have a problem with authority; (especially the people in positions of auhtority – i.e. being told what to do or what to believe) people who dictate a way to live and practice another behind closed doors. The fact that there are so many denominations of Christianity helps make this point. I really liked the authors point about most people don't find anything more important than themselves and their own ideas; again making the point of a problem with authority.
    But, I've been there, I've tried to live by my own ideas and beliefs and it only led me to pain and misery. I found God late in life as I was 33 years old when I accepted Jesus in my life and I was 38 years old when I finally got sober. So, during that 5 year period I was 'playing the role' of a religious man. A tramatic experience led me to the belief that I needed a 'higher power' to guide my will, because on my own I was nothing but a drunk. I chose to call my 'higher power' Jesus Christ, but because of the spiritual principles I've learned (and that saved my life in A.A.) I have also learned to practice tolerance of other people and their beliefs or lack there of.
    Finding a good church home is a lot like finding a good A.A. group. Each has their own personality. You've got to tolerate what you can or find a new home.
    All of the spiritual principles in the A.A. are found in the bible, but the difference is the bible tells you who and what and these are the rules (religion). A.A. says the only requirement is a willingness to believe (in a higher power), but the who and the what is up to you (spirituality). The rules in this case are the 12 steps; AKA our spiritual priciples.
    It's my humble belief that the whole world would benefit from A.A.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:46 am |
  3. nojinx

    " as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America."

    When the populace of your nation trusts rapists more than they trust non-believers, yes, that is oppression. Atheists are categorically grouped despite being the most diverse of all possible groups, coming from all walks of life. I am often berated and have even had rocks thrown at my car because of bumper stickers.

    I wonder if the author has any idea how difficult it is to be a child who rejects their theological teachings. Parents do not take well to such things.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:46 am |
    • David V

      I wouldn't say oppressed, more like ostracized.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:53 am |
    • nojinx

      I think of the oppression in the sense of having violence done to us, being fired from jobs or prevented from being appointed to offices. Ostracize is a better word overall, though, for the general behavior toward atheists by some.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:08 am |
  4. presidentofthechurch

    For all those who are looking for the correct path, there is a instruction book.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • nojinx

      There are actually hundreds, but only for those who are not self-sufficient.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:47 am |
    • jungleboo

      Only if you buy bull.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:48 am |
  5. Moderate

    I'm a practicing Catholic, so I can tell you that I am both spiritual and religious. I do know many people who only consider themselves spiritual however, and do know quite a few atheists.
    To say that people who consider themselves spiritual but not religious are somehow "copping-out" is ridiculous. Because someone's beliefs don't fit into a pre-set matrix doesn't make them less (or more) correct. It simply makes them different. I suspect that if they were to find a church which believed what they believe, they would happily be members.

    And regarding atheists, no they are not religious. They, by definition, do not believe in a religion.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:44 am |
  6. Jeanette Hedges

    How you really feel about those who identify themselves as being "spiritual but not religious" is revealed right away in your second paragraph by identifying this group (along with "new atheists") as being narcissists, who form a "culture of narcissism." That's a hugely potent and disdainful label. That's all I need to know about your position to realize it can't be countered because it is based on a deeply held and immutable prejudice.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:43 am |
    • stillthinking

      He doesn't say why he thinks they are narcissistic – he must be projecting – or he ran into someone he did not like and thought was narcissistic who also stated he/she was a whatever label he applies – and then categorizes a whole subset of people most probably did not know was a group of people to begin with as this one person?
      i do not know – let's ask him
      hey alan – are you going to talk to us again – you need to truly apologize and i for one have a few questions.
      like – if you disdain this group of people so much – why did you write these articles and hold a meeting for these people and about these people at the same time degrading them in conjunction with a universal hate crime against religion event?
      seriously – why did you do it?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  7. Ben

    I think you got 'spiritual, not religious' completely wrong. It sounds to me that you are equating spirituality to atheism. For me Spirituality is practicing your faith every day, trying to understand your faith and become a better person. Religion is going to your church, mosque, temple once a year to keep in 'good standing.' Spirituality can be Christianity, Islam, Hindu or anything that you have faith in.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:43 am |
  8. Katrina

    Alan Miller, may you one day be a warrior without need for enemies.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  9. Eric Bear

    I'm left wondering how the author has a job at CNN....

    October 3, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • stillthinking

      he is a special to CNN.
      I am wondering if and when CNN is ever going to stop inciting these type hate crime reactions in the people through corporate backing.
      I mean – this is truly unprofessional of CNN to do this, don't you think?
      The front page of CNN at one point stated that these people were a danger.
      I seriously could not believe it.

      October 3, 2012 at 11:36 am |
  10. nojinx

    "who are furious that anyone could have the audacity to believe in something bigger than themselves."

    That is a poor description. Atheists, if furious, are furious about the audacity of believing in one doctrine without reason but rejecting others without reason. I'd say they are disappointed. Only the vocal atheists get furious.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  11. D

    So is the author saying that if you dont subscribe to an unprovable set of "accepted" beliefs, your beliefs are invalid? Seems to me like the only truth in religion and spirituality is the common theme that runs throughout. That can be the only thing that is the closest to truth. And since it runs through EVERY faith, it is not a religious theme. But a theme of human understanding that has endured no matter what culture it is tied to.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:41 am |
  12. Amniculi

    "It is so interesting how so many people now use the thera'peutic language of recovery – "recovering" from organized religion. The group American Atheists describes anguish and toil as the "first step" of "coming out," making the an'alogy with gays coming out the "closet," as though somehow atheists are oppressed today in America."

    Are atheists not oppressed? It may not be inst'itutionalized oppression, but it is still oppression. Everywhere we look religious propaganda is forced upon us. We're told that we're waging a war against Christianity (or Christmas, or Easter, etc., etc. – you'd think Christians were the ones being oppressed), though nothing could be farther from the truth. Even if we were, it would be a war of defense, not aggression. Studies show that we atheists are mistrusted as much as rap'ists (http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/religion/story/2011-12-10/religion-atheism/51777612/1), though nothing has been done to deserve this.
    And yes, religion is a disease. One that the whole of modern society needs to recover from. If you compare historically the amount of good that has been done by religion (charity, scientific advancement, art, etc.) to the amount of harm (war, hate, terror, oppression, etc.) that scales will tip definitively toward the latter. Christopher Hitchens stated that religion is child abuse, and I have no reason to disagree with him. Exposure to religion, especially Christianity, creates an undue burden of mental anguish on a child by making them believe that unless they behave in a certain way they are doomed to eternal torture. At other times, children are raised in an environment of religious extremism leading to intolerance, hate, terror and oppression. Therapy is need to allay the effects of other types of disease and abuse, why not religion?

    October 3, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  13. Alan Miller co-founder of London's Old Truman Brewery

    Why don't people listen to me? I can't be wrong about what everyone in the world thinks!!!!!

    October 3, 2012 at 10:40 am |
  14. Patton Swift

    i'm not sure you are making a point Mr. Miller.....

    October 3, 2012 at 10:39 am |
    • Jennifer G.


      October 3, 2012 at 10:42 am |
  15. Jim

    I believe there's a creator, but he never tried communicating with us directly like all the religions out there advertise. Also, why would he want us to worship him? Seems a bit farfetched with all the rituals and crap. Spirituality is the way to go for me, not religion.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:39 am |
  16. nojinx

    "I don't happen to believe in a religious "one true way" and in fact am not religious myself"

    Wait, the author is not religious? I take it he is not spiritual either, since his original article took issue with those who were spiritual but not religious.

    Speaking from my own experience, spirituality is hard to find in atheist communities.

    October 3, 2012 at 10:37 am |
    • Anne112

      Spirituality is difficult to find in religious communities as well.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:41 am |
    • mk

      Actually, spirituality and religion are in no way similar. Here's one definition of spirituality, but generally they all say some version of this: Spirituality can refer to an ultimate or immaterial reality; an inner path enabling a person to discover the essence of their being; or the “deepest values and meanings by which people live.”
      Spirituality encourages an open mind; a personal quest. Religion dictates exactly how and what to think and actually forbids any independent thought or questioning, any variation from what is dictated. It's all spelled out, just accept it and shut up.
      I'm spiritual therefore I could never accept religion.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:48 am |
    • nojinx

      The definitions of "spirituality" that you use are so broad and ambiguous, it is hard to see how it actually exists. It just seems like a synonym for "being a conscious person". Do you think it is possible for someone to not be spiritual? What would an example of that be?

      October 3, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  17. Cynthia

    Well...I just wasted 10 minutes...

    October 3, 2012 at 10:36 am |
  18. Alan Miller co-founder of London's Old Truman Brewery

    I'm right people! You're ALL wrong!

    October 3, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • HK

      Wow! What makes you think that way. Had a too many "tasting" drinks?

      October 3, 2012 at 10:49 am |
  19. David V

    The fact that he admits he's not religious himself makes it even worse. He's just some random dip**** who thinks he has the authority to judge how people should live their lives. Seriously, who is this guy?

    October 3, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • stillthinking

      some random wanna be one percenter probably – or god forbid – one of 'them'

      October 3, 2012 at 11:44 am |
  20. Reality

    Only for the new members of this blog:

    The NY Salon has not filed an IRS Form 990 which is required of all non-profits unless the organization is a recognized religion. (guidestar.org). So Mr. Miller is apparently in this for the money he can make peddling real estate at his Old Truman Brewery and sponsoring meetings of high brows at between $1000-$5000 a pop. CNN might want to do a bit of background searching before allowing Mr. Miller to present commentary on any subject especially since his educational background as per his website amounts to directing a few films????

    "Alan is the co-founder of The Truman Brewery, a 10 acre site in London's East End. The Truman Brewery now has over 200 companies, ranging from recording studios to art galleries, entertainment spaces, restaurants, bars, cafes, fashion and retail. It has been largely responsible for regenerating a significant area of London and creating a new cultural quarter. Alan is also a film director and has had his work broadcast internationally, with a specialization in music videos and live events. He writes on various cultural issues for several publications and is a published author. http://www.alandmiller.net"

    October 3, 2012 at 10:35 am |
    • pastmorm

      Well done Reality! Good to have some background on this silly git!

      October 3, 2012 at 10:36 am |
    • HK

      Thanks for the information on this weird man.

      October 3, 2012 at 10:56 am |
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